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Denise Pierce on Growth in Indiana’s Life Sciences Industry

Xconomy Indiana — 

Denise K. Pierce is an anomaly. We’ve heard a lot of platitudes lately from the tech industry about increasing diversity in STEM-related fields, but, to Pierce, inclusion is more than just an abstract idea.

She runs an Indiana-based firm called DK Pierce (DKP) that helps biopharmaceutical and life sciences companies across the country find their customers and get their products to market. Check out DKP’s website and take a look at the page displaying the company’s team; it soon becomes clear what makes Pierce an anomaly.

“It’s probably easier to say how many men work for us than how many women,” she said with a laugh. “Out of 23 people, five are men.”

DKP’s expertise mostly lies on the strategic side of the biopharma industry, Pierce explained. “We work with mid-stage companies that are more mature than most in Indiana, where we have lots of early-stage startups,” she said. “Our focus is oncology drugs and rare diseases. What we do is help determine whether clinical data will meet the needs of health insurance plans, and we identify the right patients for clinical trials.”

Pierce said there’s a lot going on in her industry at the moment, and one of the biggest challenges she sees when it comes to getting new drugs to market is the increased public scrutiny regarding drug pricing.

“The FDA is really critiquing at a different level,” she said. “You get close [to being finished], and the FDA asks for more data. We help launch new drugs as well, and we’ve had several products recently where we’ve been ready to go and the FDA suddenly stops [the process].”

Pierce said although most of her firm’s clients are confidential, out of the drugs launched in 2016, DKP has had a hand in launching “most of them,” including four of the top new oncology drugs that have come on the market in the past year and a half.

IU Health is a hub for cancer research,” she added. “Oncology is a very resilient medical specialty. The challenge involves balancing patient care with administrative demands.” DKP also works with biopharma startups that have been incubated at BioCrossroads, a life sciences accelerator based in Indianapolis.

According to a 2015 BioCrossroads report, Indiana’s life sciences industry has generated $62 billion in economic impact, and is the second-largest exporter of life sciences products in the country—nearly one third of the state’s total exports. Anchored by industry giants such as Eli Lilly [[NYSE: LLY), Cook Medical, and Dow Agrosciences, Indiana’s life sciences sector employs more than 56,500 people working at nearly 1,700 companies. In 2015, the report found, Indiana companies and universities were granted 1,211 patents for life sciences-related innovations, and 83 new products were approved by the FDA.

“Indiana is pretty strong—and growing—in the life sciences sector,” Pierce said. She said there are plenty of up-and-coming biopharma and life science companies in Indiana, and singled out two she currently has her eye on: Midwest Bio-Tech, an Indianapolis startup working on peptide synthesis technology, and Matrix-Bio, a cancer diagnostics company headquartered in Fort Wayne.

As for how Pierce and women-led DKP have managed to thrive in a male-dominated STEM industry, she described her past jobs with Amgen, Pfizer, and Bristol-Meyers Squibb as her proving ground. “I was lucky to have good, supportive male mentors. I learned a lot from them,” she said.

Through the years, she’s been able to develop credibility in the industry, a process she described as challenging. “When I walk in to meet with a client and they want to direct their attention to the two men I’m with, I make a point of making sure the focus is on me. It requires working doubly hard and being very succinct and accurate.” It seems to be paying off, as Pierce estimated 90 percent of her business is thanks to word-of-mouth support.

Pierce thinks Indiana has some work to do in terms of improving diversity in STEM industries, but she’s encouraged by DKP’s success. The company broke ground this week on a new $3.9 million, 18,000-square-foot headquarters in Zionsville. DKP plans to move in next spring.

“I live in Zionsville, and I absolutely love the community,” she said. “I wanted my employees to work in that kind of environment.”